Wisconsin Gets To Enforce Restrictive Voter ID Law, With One Big Twist

An appeals court rejected a softening device that would've made it easier for people without a voter card.
Wisconsin's voter identification law, which was enforced during the primaries, will stay on the books. Sort of.
Wisconsin's voter identification law, which was enforced during the primaries, will stay on the books. Sort of.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal appeals court on Friday seemed to reach a limited compromise in the controversy over Wisconsin’s voter identification law, which has been in the crosshairs of multiple lawsuits and appeals for years.

With one judge recused, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit consolidated the disputes and issued an order that kept the law on the books, but appeared to give voting rights advocates a small consolation prize ahead of the November election.

The court explicitly rejected a softening device ― like one ordered by a federal judge this month in Texas ― that would allow voters lacking the required voter ID card to simply sign an affidavit attesting to their identity before they cast a ballot.

Instead, the court accepted assurances from the state of Wisconsin that its Division of Motor Vehicles would “mail automatically a free photo ID to anyone who comes to DMV one time and initiates the free ID process.”

“No one must present documents, that, for some, have proved challenging to acquire; no one must show a birth certificate, proof of citizenship, and the like,” the court noted, quoting the state from a prior legal filing.

The 7th Circuit stressed that mere “initiation” of this process ― showing up at the DMV, regardless of what documentation the prospective voter has ― was enough for a voter to receive a voting credential at no cost.

But this also presupposes that affected voters, especially those of lesser means or without transportation, actually can make it to a DMV location. Or that the state will actually keep voters informed that this mechanism even exists.

Pointing to other rulings striking down similar voter ID laws in other states, the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought one of the lawsuits against Wisconsin, didn’t seem to trust the state to deliver.

“Two trial courts have found that, over the last five years, Wisconsin has utterly failed to get IDs into the hands of voters who need them,” Sean Young, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s voting rights project, said in a statement. “There’s no reason to believe that the state’s latest eleventh-hour ‘emergency’ procedures will work any better than its past failed policies.”

Young added that the ACLU would keep fighting the law in court, but didn’t say whether he would seek Supreme Court review.

Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in election law, wrote in a blog post that, given time constraints ahead of the November election, it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would intervene.

“I think this is the end of the line for this election,” Hasen wrote.

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